Cheer the hero! Hiss the villain! Throw peanuts to the monkeys! Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the great industrial relations show!

Paul Keating famously once promised to throw the switch to vaudeville, but what happens when our political theatre is already music hall – gaudy and tawdry? To find out, all you need to do is follow the IR dramas.

“On the question of industrial relations…we’re confident that we’ve got the balance right when it comes to the needs and flexibility and fairness,” Kevin Rudd said at Labor’s National Conference on Sunday.

“We’re concerned about how do we give the best protection possible to the people out there with working families who need protection when it comes to basic things like penalty rates. Basic things like overtime; basic things like holiday leave loading; basic things like redundancy pay. Basic things which Mr Howard’s unfair, industrial relations laws have stripped away.”

Sez who, the PM replied?

“The Labor Party is still being told by the unions what to do and the real difference between our industrial relations policy and the Labor Party’s is that Labor’s industrial relations policy entrenches again the dominant position of the union movement whether workers want it or not,” he said only yesterday.

“That’s what collective bargaining is all about, that’s what getting rid of AWAs is all about, that’s what a return to compulsory arbitration is all about. It’s about reasserting the role of the union movement, giving them a monopoly over the bargaining process in our industrial relations system. That’s the crucial difference, that’s why they don’t want AWAs.”

And his changes this morning? They’re nothing!

“I believe that with legislation as big and as important as this, you do need to monitor its operation,” the PM says.

“I always said we would be willing to fine-tune it. I think this is a bit more than fine-tuning but it doesn’t undermine in any way the fundamentals of the legislation.”

Not so, according to Opposition IR spokesperson Julia Gillard.

“This is just a short-term political manoeuvre from a desperate, desperate man and the day after the election he will go back to what he truly believes in and that is his WorkChoices laws and their ability to drive the wages and conditions of Australian working families down,” she said this morning.

In the rowdy audience, you have ACCI’s Peter Hendy heckling: “They’re strengthening the workplace safety net, but it doesn’t need to be strengthened, it was strong enough under WorkChoices as it stood.”

And there’s Sharan Burrow from the ACTU: “I really think it’s a bit of desperation on John Howard’s part, because working Australians are so opposed to these laws.”

The facts of the IR debate run something like this: Labor’s blanket abolition of AWAs has put it in conflict with the resources sector, the business sector driving the Australian economy.

This could cost it votes in the state where it’s already polling poorest, WA, the heartland of the resources boom. It also means the government’s attacks on Labor’s economic competence may make more of a mark on voters.

Rudd and Gillard are now looking for a way of providing the flexibility offered by AWAs through some other method.

As Gillard said on Wednesday “There are other options, like very flexible enterprise awards, and indeed some of our mining companies work with those today. Those awards can have facilitation clauses in them that allow for common law contracts to cover some conditions, perhaps individual pay arrangements, whilst the award covers the conditions that are common across the workforce.”

But this isn’t as entertaining as music hall.

Music hall – with a bit of burlesque from Bill Heffernan.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey